Visiting the sister cities by the sea

How to get around Valparaíso and Viña del Mar

From high-speed trains to old-fashioned ascensores, navigating the twists and turns of Valparaíso and Viña del Mar is easy with a little know-how.

Monday, October 24, 2011 Category: Tourism
Valparaíso’s ascensores are an innovative transportation solution to the city’s many hills. (Photo b Valparaíso’s ascensores are an innovative transportation solution to the city’s many hills. (Photo by b00nj/Flickr)

Chile’s second-largest urban conglomerate is also one of its most popular tourist attractions, with a creative student vibe in Valparaíso next door to the vibrant city of Viña del Mar and a sparkling string of beach resorts extending up the coast.

Still, the twisty streets and network of stairs that navigate the cities’ many hills can become a labyrinth of dead-ends if you don’t keep your wits about you and This is Chile’s guide in hand.

Orienting yourself

Orienting yourself is usually easy, with the silver ribbon of the sea within sight from the peak of even the gnarliest hill, but finding a street that takes you straight to your destination can be tricky. Remember that the gigantic cranes of the Valparaíso port delineate the southern end of the bay, and the gleaming skyscrapers of downtown Viña del Mar are a good landmark to the north. 

Metro

The “Merval” is the regional high-speed train that takes passengers along the Valparaíso waterfront, up to Viña del Mar and then inland to Limache. The train transports more than a million passengers a month, and can be a great alternative for inter-city transportation during commuter gridlock. Tickets are sold inside the stations, which are easy to locate along the sea front and marked on Google maps.

Bus

The retro-style buses of Valparaíso and Viña del Mar offer a glimpse of the colorful chaos that must have been Santiago’s public transportation system before former President Michelle Bachelet implemented Transantiago in 2007. Buses race each other to pick up passengers and tend to be rather bumpy affairs, but prices are cheap and it’s faster than walking. One of the highlights of the Valparaíso bus system is the “O” bus that travels through Valparaíso’s hills on a route parallel to the ocean, offering unparalleled views of the coastline and passing some of the city’s most iconic tourist attractions. Or, from Plaza Colombia in Viña del Mar, you can catch buses to the seaside resorts of Reñaca, Concón, Quintero, Horcones and Maitencillo: look for the name of the destination on the front of the bus.

Taxis and colectivos

Three types of taxis navigate the streets of Valparaíso and Viña del Mar: colectivos, standard taxis and radio taxis. Locals are most likely to use colectivos, a shared taxi that runs a fixed route and fits four passengers. Rates are cheap and travel time is often substantially shorter than traveling by bus, but it can take some luck to crack the code of where to catch a colectivo and where it will take you.

Easier and more expensive are the standard black-and-yellow taxis that run throughout the day. Cost is calculated according to the meter that should be visible on the dash board, and the driver will help you get anywhere you need to go in the city. The final option, perfect if you’re planning a late night out or an early trip to the beach, are radio taxis, which can be ordered to your door. Radio taxis generally look like any other car, except for the orange license plate.

Ascensores and horse-drawn carriages

Valparaíso and Viña del Mar offer two whimsical transportation options that you’re unlikely to find in any other city: the iconic ascensores of Valparaíso and the classic horse-drawn carriages in Viña del Mar.

The ascensores - also known as funiculares - were a genuinely useful form of transportation for the residents of Valparaíso’s steeper hills, offering a quick trip up the face of a cliff for just a few pesos. Most of the ascensores are now closed, but the popular mural exhibit known as the Museo al Cielo Abierto on Cerro Bellavista is most easily accessed from the Ascensor Espíritu Santo, located at the corner of the Plaza Victoria.

The horses and buggies waiting at Viña del Mar’s Plaza Colombia is a likewise anachronistic transport for such a modern city, but the sight of the gray horses and black carriages outside the ultra-modern Enjoi casino is somehow pleasing to the eye. Carriage rides take you along the waterfront and generally last an hour.